What is Normal?

This week's blog is from George Martin. What is normal? I have heard that question uttered in a variety of ways ever since I became employed in the disabilities field in 1975.

In the mid 1970’s the primary philosophy informing the work of people with cognitive disabilities, and other developmental disabilities, was captured by the term “normalization”. The normalization philosophy was first articulated in the Scandinavian countries and later in a more comprehensive manner by Wolf Wolfensberger in his book entitled Normalization, The Principle of Normalization in Human Services.

Wolfensberger defined normalization both as an end and a means. That is, a person with a disability would have become more like ‘normal’ people’, if the correct guidance were provided for them, and the methods used to reach this end would be as close to those experienced by the rest of the population considered to be ‘normal’.

Even as this philosophy was embraced almost universally in the disabilities field, I frequently heard people refer to people being treated like normal, then in a self-conscious afterthought say, ‘whatever that is’.

I think it is time to pay much more attention than we have to ‘whatever that is’. Wolfensberger’s thinking contained a couple of deep flaws at the time it was popular. First, he bought into whatever the mainstream culture defined as ‘normal’ as the acceptable. Secondly, for him normalization was moving away from deviancy toward a more acceptable way for a person with a disability to be and to behave.

Since the mid-70’s we have learned that what the mainstream culture considers to be acceptable is not always desirable, and it is not nearly so clear today as back then what ‘normal’ really is. People of different ethnic and racial origins are more numerous in this country than Caucasians. The total number of people with some kind of disability, or other kind of significant problems, is no longer the distinct minority it once was.

Look at your own family, your own children, yourself. Are those ways that you and they differ from others so unlike other people. The old phrase we used to use “like you, different” is more the norm today than the term ‘normal’.